“You should ice that.”

If you’re an athlete, outdoor worker, in the military, generally active, or getting older and experiencing more aches and pains, you probably hear that phrase a lot. But often, cold therapy is not the answer, and applying heat would be more beneficial - especially for everyday aches and pains.

From muscle or joint pain, to stiffness, headaches or menstrual cramps, here’s what you need to know about using heat for pain relief.

How and When to Use Heat

The application of heat therapy helps to improve blood, oxygen and nutrient flow to the affected area. This is beneficial for healing damaged tissues, improving range of motion, relieving aching joints, easing muscle pain and stiffness, loosening tight or spasming muscles, and increasing flexibility and elasticity. Heat is also generally comforting, which can enhance its ability to ease pain.

In a review of medical studies, published in the journal Postgraduate Medicine, researchers found that heat-wrap therapy reduced pain and disability in people with low back pain and provided more pain relief for muscle soreness than cold therapy. Similarly, in a U.S. Pain Foundation survey, many people reported heat therapy helpful for neck, back and shoulder pain. For headaches, experts (including at Harvard) recommend applying heat to the neck to reduce spasms that can contribute to tension headaches.

Heat Therapy is Great for:

  • Muscle Stiffness
  • Warm Up Muscles before Activity
  • Arthritis Relief
  • Menstrual Pain
  • Osteoarthritis find heat beneficial

A convenient, portable way to utilize the soothing power of heat is with ThermaCare Heat Therapy Heat Wraps available through Amazon and at retailers like Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS.

With targeted, long-lasting warmth, ThermaCare Heat Therapy self-adhesive wraps are available for neck, back, joint, other muscle, and menstrual pain. Applied discreetly and conveniently (no heating pad bulkiness or cords), ThermaCare heat can last up to 16 hours for deep, penetrating relief and enduring increased circulation — under clothing, as you go about your day.

Do not apply heat:

  • To a new or early stage injury (avoid heat applications for the first 48-72 hours after injury)
  • To skin that is hot, red, or inflamed or to an open wound
  • If you have diabetes, skin irritation, a vascular disease, deep vein thrombosis, or multiple sclerosis (MS), or any sensory disorder that might prevent you from sensing if tissues are becoming overheated
  • That is too hot, be careful you don’t burn or scald the skin

When & How to Use Cold

As a general rule, grab yourself something chilly when you’re dealing with new or acute injury or pain, and when inflammation and swelling is your main concern.

Still not sure? Sports medicine and physical therapists say that if your pain is less than 72 hours old, then cold packs or other cooling measures (also known as cryotherapy) are your go-to.

In these circumstances, cold therapy can reduce swelling, related pain, and bruising. This is because cold application can slow blood flow in the affected area. Cold can also temporarily reduce nerve activity and pain messages being sent to the brain.

To apply cold therapy, you have many options: bags of ice, reusable cold packs, cooling gels and sprays, cold plunges, or paper cups filled with water and frozen for an ice massage. To enhance your cryotherapy, try elevating the problem area while you ice, if possible.

Cold Therapy

Do not use ice or cryotherapy:

  • Prior to exercise
  • If you are experiencing cramping or increased muscle tension (cold could make this worse)
  • If you have sensory disorders, diabetes, Raynaud’s syndrome, or poor circulation (because you may not be able to feel if tissues are becoming too cold)
  • If your main concern is stiffness
  • If you are already cold or if the area is already numb
  • On an open wound or blistered skin
  • Directly against the skin - place a cloth or towel between ice packs and the skin
  • For more than 20 minutes at a time (apply cold treatments for 20 minutes maximum and then take at least a 20-minute break.)

Cold therapy is most useful for pain and discomfort that is less than 3 days old, but for the majority of us with day-to-day pain and stiffness, heat is actually more likely to bring relief and mobility. Save the ice for your cooler or a summer slushy, instead.

For convenient, on-the-go heat therapy, look for ThermaCare Heat Therapy self-adhesive wraps on Amazon and at Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS.

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